What it means to be a “walk on”

Now that the start of a new school year is fast approaching, I’m getting a lot more questions about being a walk-on. Based on emails I get throughout the year it seems like something that not a lot of people are aware of or know is an option … despite the majority of college programs being made up of walk-ons. Today’s post is going to quickly highlight what it means and how it compares to being a recruit.

There are two types of walk-ons: the ones that have no prior experience with rowing and pick it up for the first time in college (a good number of the rowers in Rio right now did this) and the ones who rowed/coxed in high school but weren’t supported by coaches throughout the admissions process (meaning you can be actively recruited and still be a walk-on) or didn’t go through the recruiting process at all.

Related: I am currently a senior in high school and have been rowing for a while. If I am interested in walking on to a team in the fall, should I fill out the questionnaire on the website?

Athletes who do this are also sometimes known as “preferred walk-ons” or “experienced walk-ons”, which basically just means that they get lumped in with the recruits once the coach knows you’re interested in the program. A lot of coxswains tend to fall into this category since most coaches use their available slots on rowers and their grades are typically good enough that they don’t need that boost from the coaches. The only disadvantage in not having the coaches support you is that you don’t get that extra boost that could get you into your reach/”dream” school if you’re on the bubble.  In most cases though after talking with the coach (and doing a pre-read, if that’s an option) you’ll have a good idea as to whether or not your reach school is actually within reach, so it’s not like you’re applying while being completely unsure of where you stand.

Related: College Recruiting 101

It’s important to keep in mind that coaches can only support so many people. An example is one of the (Ivy League) coaches I worked with over the last couple of weeks. They’ve got 350+ athletes in their current recruiting database and of the 200-250ish that remain once those without the grades or erg scores are eliminated, only 14 will be offered slots. That doesn’t mean that their incoming class will only have 14 rowers, it just means that anyone outside of those 14 will need to have the grades to get in on their own. If they’ve got a strong academic resume then they’ll probably be told that they’re wanted on the team but there’s not really a point in using a slot on them since they don’t need the help, whereas someone who has a more “average” academic resume (accompanied with big ergs and a solid rowing background) might be offered a slot so the coaches can wield their influence (I use that term very loosely and borderline sarcastically) to ensure they get who they want.

Related: How do you respond if you aren’t chosen to be recruited?

If you already know as a junior or senior that you want to row in college but don’t want to go through the recruiting process, don’t have the erg scores, etc. you should still loosely go through the process anyways. All that entails is reaching out to the coaches once you’ve been admitted and saying that you’re interested in walking on to the team. Not only does this help them get a sense of what their numbers will look like, it can also let you get a lot of your NCAA compliance paperwork out of the way sooner.

Related: As a coxswain are you treated differently as a recruit to a D1 college as opposed to a varsity cox who walks on the team? Or is it rare to have someone walk on a crew team who coxed through high school?

The last two years I’ve helped manage the walk-ons at MIT and one of our walk-ons emailed me in July last year to say he was interested in joining the team. Reaching out early like that allowed us to get him set up with the athletic department at the same time our current guys were filling out their paperwork, which we have to do every year. It all has to be completed by a certain date in order to guarantee everyone is cleared to practice at the beginning of the year otherwise you get moved to the very bottom of the list behind all the other teams, which means it’ll take for.freaking.ever. to get cleared. Two to three weeks is about how long it’s taken since I’ve been there and most of you know how brutal it is to miss out on that kind of water time. Moral of the story/pro tip, if you know you want to walk-on, even as someone who’s never rowed before (like the guy on our team I just mentioned), the sooner you reach out, the better.

Related: How hard is it to just start rowing in college, especially at a D1 or Ivy League school?

I anticipate getting a lot more questions about this as we get closer to September so I’ve kept this post kinda vague in order to just cover the basics and leave room for another post in the future that answers your more specific questions. If you think of anything, leave a comment or shoot me an email!

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2 thoughts on “What it means to be a “walk on”

  1. Yeelin Bacchus says:

    Hello,
    I am a junior in high school and I am a rower but I’m on the shorter side (5’4) and my erg scores aren’t anything to brag about. I actually started out as a coxswain in my freshman year but one day my coach had me sub in and I just never subbed out. The thing is that I don’t really enjoy rowing all that much (I still like it but it isn’t what I think I’m good at) but I was really passionate about coxing and I want to try and walk on as a coxswain at college. I don’t really know how to go about it though. Should I try to cox at my high school again? Also, should I reach out to college coaches and, if so, when should I consider doing that? Thanks.

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